Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tapping the wisdom of people.

A process to tap the wisdom of crowds - and get away from depending on 'experts'.


It is important, when introducing change into any organisation, to ensure all involved feel 'ownership' of whatever changes are to be implemented. Without agreed 'ownership' change doesn't happen, unless those involved are forced to comply. In such situations change is at best half hearted.

In reality change is often imposed pushed on an organisation by 'leaders' who either haven't the time to involve everyone, or believe that such an involvement isn't worth the time and effort, or, worse still, because those in charge know best.

James Surowiecki in his book 'Wisdom of Crowds' writes that it is only by tapping the 'wisdom of crowds' that real change is possible.

This of course is counter intuitive to what we all have been led to believe. Over the past century the rise of the specialist 'expert' has led us to believe that such people know better. It is hard to believe that crowds know better than such highly informed people.

Of course it is not just a matter of listening to the collective voice of a crowd. We all know crowds can be easily swayed by those with the loudest voice or the most power. A good example of collective wisdom is that shown by the jury process where a group of citizens listen to the voices of, often contradictory, experts and then use their common sense.

Surowiecki says there are three important conditions to be in place to ensure wisdom is to be gained from groups. If the conditions are followed group decisions are better than those provided by an expert, or even a group of experts.

1 The best group decisions come from the most diverse groups ( experts all know the same things).

2 Every person in the group must have an opportunity to have a say ( all too often those with the loudest voices or most power have all the say).

3 There has to be a process in place to aggregate the ideas of the group.


I have been involved with school that made use of such a process and i was impressed.

The process was called '10-4 voting' as goes as follows.

Each group needs a 'facilitator' to ensure the process is followed and a 'recorder' to number and list ideas of members ( both take part in the process as well).

A task is given to the group
e.g. How can we engage our disengaged learners?

1 Sitting in a circle go around the group , each person contributing an idea ( or saying pass). The leader has to be firm to ensure there is no cross discussion or clarification.This is important. It will be hard for some members

2 The recorder numbers and lists each suggestion.

3 Keep going around the group until there are no more suggestions or the agreed time has run out.

4 On completion the 'leader' asks if anyone wants to ask anybody for clarification about any suggestion but only the person who provided the idea can respond.

5 The 'leader',if necessary, can ask that if there are suggestions that look the same if they can be combined. Only those who contributed the idea consider combining. If no agreement leave both ideas on the list.

6 Each person then has 10 votes. They can only use 4 in the first round. Votes can be placed against any of the suggestions ( they can put all four on one idea if they want). Complete the second round of four votes and finally the final two.

7 At the completion certain issues will have 'emerged' that then become the basis of professional development 'action plans' to explore solutions.

At the school I observed using this process all teachers had previously provided ideas that they thought needed to be faced up to to develop their school as one where all students were to be given the opportunity to succeed.

To really work, Surowiecki says, someone has to 'champion' the process and to to ensure that the 'wisdom' that has 'emerged' is capitalised on.

Tapping the wisdom of crowds challenges some our deeply held assumptions about leadership , power and authority. Done properly collective judgements, he believes, can be 'wiser' and more lasting than those imposed by 'experts'.

Challenging assumption that underlie traditional model of decision making is not easy but it is 'smart'. As Surowiecki concludes his book saying that he is cautiously hopeful that that such group decisions will allow us, 'to begin to trust individual leaders less and ourselves more'.

Well worth a try if we really believe in democracy.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is exiting stuff even if counter intuitive as you say. Gives people with ideas ( but not a loud voice) a chance to have their say and to have their ideas considered by others. It is this lack of power sharing and democracy that is missing in many orgnistions.

Brian O'C said...

hi Bruce
Have used this myself. Two things help. The leader does not vote. This makes ownership away from the leader and allows authority to be transferred. Even if the transfer is not complete it is still useful. Secondly it is essential to stop discussion. Then the democracy may really flow. Stop the big loud (usually white male) voices and then you can hear the real voices.

I think the wisest words I have had for change is "Take small but continuous steps"

Bruce said...

Thanks Brian

I meant by the 'leader' not the principal - just a group member but I take your point. The book mentioned is worth a read.

The JBF bibliography should be great!